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beating wives -- not quite a blog entry.

in the interests of completeness and context, i've reproduced the entire text of the question/answer section i came across recently at a site called "Understanding Islam", which addresses that famous verse in the Qur'an (well, famous maybe if you happen to be a QMW) -- the one that talks about men, women, and um, the men beating the women.

however, because the topic has since received further discussion (and everyone should be given a chance to respond to a difference of opinion), the original text can be viewed at:
http://www.understanding-islam.com/related/text.asp?type=question&qid=544.

you can copy/paste the link into a new browser window if you like.  otherwise, read on here - the original question, their answer, and my thoughts.




question (from the Understanding Islam site):

Of late there has been some discussion over the verse in the Qur'an concerning the "beating" of your wife.  I was wondering if you could explain this verse a bit further.  It seems as though the initial reading of the verse would justify physically hurting your wife if she was out of line.  Is that really the case?




answer (from the Understanding Islam site):

Maintaining a balance between responsibility and authority is an important issue in modern Organizational Theory.  There can be a difference of opinion regarding the extent of power (authority) delegated for performing a particular duty (responsibility); but obviously, if someone is assigned a duty he must be given a reasonable degree of authority that is necessary to perform his tasks.  For example, if we assign the Police Department the task of prevention of crime in a society, we will have to give the necessary degree of authority to the personnel of that department.  In case we refuse to do so then the department cannot be held responsible for any crime committed in the society.  As stated earlier, there can be a difference of opinion regarding the extent of the authority given to perform a particular duty but the basic principle that every responsibility must entail adequate authority cannot be questioned.

Keeping the above explanation in mind, consider the concept of the "society".  Society has generally been defined as the web of relationships and interactions among human beings.  A closer look at society shows that its basic and primary unit is the family; actually, society, as a whole, is nothing more than the various family groups that comprise it.  Therefore, in building a stable society, it is of utmost importance that this basic and primary unit should be given all the stability that it can be given.  It is only for this reason that most, if not all the teachings of Islam regarding the social set up are directed towards achieving this particular end.  Obviously, one of the most important requirements for providing stability to the institution of family is to build it up on a sound basis and to define its authority/responsibility hierarchy.  If you look at the referred verse closely, you shall see that it is actually giving this definition.  The verse reads as follows:

"Men [as husbands] are responsible for their women because God has made the one superior to the other [in different spheres] and because they spend of their wealth.  Therefore, righteous women are obedient [to their husbands] and guard their secrets as God has also guarded secrets.  As for those from whom you fear refusal of obedience, admonish them and [if this does not effect their behavior then] leave them alone on their beds and [if even this does not effect their behavior then] beat them." (Al-Nisaa 4: 34)

Marriage between two individuals is the beginning of the formation of a family and for a family to be properly constituted and organized, which in turn would result in a stable society, the referred verse has given it a responsibility/authority structure.  A typical family normally consists of a man, a woman and their children.  An important point to note in this verse is that rather than defining the whole responsibility/authority structure, the verse has restricted its definition to the responsibility/authority relationship between a man and his wife.  The reason for restricting this definition only to a man and his wife, and not mentioning the position of children, is also quite obvious.  It is only here that man, in general, has and can commit a mistake.  Obviously, no one will object when we say that parents - father and mother - are jointly and severally responsible for the proper upbringing and well being of their children.  However, when it comes to man and wife, we may, by "rashly" applying the principle of equality, make a mistake.  Thus, it is only in the case of the husband-wife relationship that the Qur'an has provided its guidance.

According to the referred verse, it is actually the men (as husbands) who are ultimately responsible for providing their women with an atmosphere, which is conducive for their well being (in this world as well as in the hereafter) and, as a result, for the whole family.  Two reasons have been given for delegating the position of the head of the family unit to men.  Firstly, because it is they who have been made responsible for earning the livelihood for all the family members; and secondly, because, in comparison to women, they are more suited physically and emotionally to be given this responsibility, just as women are more suited for a number of other responsibilities.

After declaring the responsibility of the man as the head of the family, for the smooth functioning of the household, women are advised and persuaded to recognize the heavy responsibility placed on their husband's shoulders and to remain obedient to them.  It is in this context that the husbands, for the purpose of fulfilling the responsibility placed on their shoulders, are advised to admonish their wives if they feel that their wives refuse to be obedient to them and thereby hinder them in fulfilling the responsibility that has been placed on them.  In case their admonition turns out to be in vain, they should then avoid conjugal relations with them to make them realize the gravity of their disobedient attitude.  In case even this step fails to improve the wives' behavior, the husbands are then advised to beat them lightly.

We may determine in the light of the referred verse of the Qur'an that unless the matter is of the nature of "Nushooz" or refusal to accept the position of the other and thus may ultimately result in the breaking of the household, the man should not resort to beating.  Obviously, in the stages of admonition and restrain from conjugal relations, the matter shall be brought under extensive discussion and views shall be exchanged thoroughly.  Seen in this perspective, the referred verse has actually provided a safeguard for women against domestic abuse and beating.  Men, in other words, have been restrained from resorting to any kind of physical punishment, unless it is determined that the matter is one of "Nushooz".  They are not allowed to take any such action on the basis of any trivial difference of opinion.

As should be obvious from the above explanation the stated authority is given to a man only to fulfill the responsibility of maintaining a peaceful and smooth running of the family.  If women are allowed to show disrespect towards the responsibility assigned to the man, it is quite likely that the same attitude is transferred to the other members of the family and an environment of complete anarchy is allowed to take charge.  It must also be kept in mind that such situation of anarchy, if left unchecked for some time, in the basic unit of the society, i.e. the family, can find its way to the very roots of the whole society and then destabilize its whole structure.  Islam does not want such a situation to materialize and it is only to prevent it that it has given the referred commandment.

This is the complete context and nature of the statement that you have referred to in your question.

- 16th February 1998




my thoughts:

I must say that I'm quite impressed with the quality of the writing in the response; the level of English and the lack of typos -- unusual in a lot of literature I have seen in Pakistan these days -- especially online.

In terms of their explanation, I have a few points of healthy contention:
- As far as duty and responsibility goes, and giving someone the authority they need in order to carry out their responsibilities, the "Police Department" analogy itself is a problem for me.  I agree that the Police Department must be allowed to exercise authority over society, and over criminals.  But, I'd like to point out that police are NOT allowed to beat people.  Maybe in Pakistan they are, and maybe this is my "Westernization" talking, but that's like saying:  "Domestic violence is an alright way in which husbands can exercise authority over wives, because police brutality / police violence are acceptable ways in which police can exercise authority over the criminals".  I'm sorry but I don't agree.  Police are in fact, *not* supposed to commit violence on criminals -- suspected or otherwise -- unless it is in self-defence, or for the purposes of restraint so that they can be caught and tried.  That's very different from beating someone because they need to be punished or "admonished" for being "disobedient".  Moreover, it is for a court of law and a jury to decide whether a person deserves punishment, not the individual policeman.  Just as it should not be left to the discretion of a husband to decide whether his wife deserves a beating or not.  I'm not even going to go into the extension of the analogy where, if a criminal is indeed found guilty in a court of law, he should not be *beaten* -- because then we're arguing a whole different case -- and I don't need to start on my conviction that -- shariah or no shariah -- whipping, stoning and cutting off people's hands are simply no longer right, and cannot be condoned in these times.  So let's not even go down that road...

- Secondly, maybe I am understanding it wrong, but I take issue with these lines:  "Obviously, no one will object when we say that parents - father and mother - are jointly and severally responsible for the proper upbringing and well being of their children.  However, when it comes to man and wife, we may, by "rashly" applying the principle of equality, make a mistake.  Thus, it is only in the case of the husband-wife relationship that the Qur'an has provided its guidance."  I guess I am one such person, who, by "rashly" applying the principle of equality, do in fact believe that both persons - husband and wife - are jointly responsible for the proper maintenance and well being of their relationship and their marriage.

- I also have a problem with the lines:  "Two reasons have been given for delegating the position of the head of the family unit to men.  Firstly, because it is they who have been made responsible for earning the livelihood for all the family members; and secondly, because, in comparison to women, they are more suited physically and emotionally to be given this responsibility, just as women are more suited for a number of other responsibilities."  Um.  I'm sorry, but not all men are "more suited" to the responsibility of earning a livelihood.  Maybe most of them are, but I have a problem with this kind of language because it is a dangerous generalization.  This is where people like the Taliban begin the thought process (or lack thereof) that results in women being forbidden to work outside the home.  I also take issue with the off-handedness with which they say "women are more suited to a number of other responsibilities".  These responsibilities weren't important enough to list or mention?  Or are they really hard to remember?

However, the parts I find particularly problematic relate to the paragragh on "Nushooz":
- "We may determine in the light of the referred verse of the Qur'an that unless the matter is of the nature of "Nushooz" or refusal to accept the position of the other and thus may ultimately result in the breaking of the household, the man should not resort to beating."  Who's the "We" that "may determine" this?  And has it actually been determined?  And I'm sorry if I sound fussy, but that's a pretty big IF under which to render that entire Quranic verse conditional -- how come it's not specified in the verse itself?

- "Obviously, in the stages of admonition and restrain from conjugal relations, the matter shall be brought under extensive discussion and views shall be exchanged thoroughly."  Again, that's not particularly "obvious" to me.  Not from what the verse itself says, anyway...

- "Seen in this perspective, the referred verse has actually provided a safeguard for women against domestic abuse and beating.  Men, in other words, have been restrained from resorting to any kind of physical punishment, unless it is determined that the matter is one of "Nushooz".  They are not allowed to take any such action on the basis of any trivial difference of opinion."  uh.  no, because *neither* of the previous two sections of this paragraph make sense -- i.e. it is NOT obvious to anyone reading that verse of the Qur'an that men should ONLY beat their wives if it is a matter of "Nushooz".  Maybe I'm crazy, but the claim that this verse actually provides a "safeguard for women against domestic abuse and beating" -- I find that a little ludicrous.

- And in terms of the line:  "In case even this step fails to improve the wives' behavior, the husbands are then advised to beat them lightly."  I am torn between feeling abject gratitude at the inclusion of the moderator "lightly" (how lucky for us that we should only be beaten lightly!) and pointing out that there is no such moderator in the Quranic translation itself.  The verse reads "leave them alone on their beds and beat them", not "beat them lightly".  That, to me, seems pretty black and white, and the long-winded and deeply theoretical exlanation provided, does not succeed -- to me -- in dealing with the simplicity of that sentence.

Finally, and most importantly, I simply do not believe that a man has any excuse, ever, to raise his hand against his wife or his children.  He may well be "more suited physically and emotionally" as it says above, but that does *not* mean he use his physical advantage to "exercise" his "authority" over any member of his family through violence.  To me, the long explanation and justification given is not able to get around that -- that the Qur'an seems here to be condoning violence against wives.  I don't care if the Qur'an "meant to say" that it should only be when they are "really really bad", or when they "really, really deserve it".  My problem is that the Qur'an seems to leave that (extremely subjective) distinction open for each man to make.

And my problem is that a man should *never* beat his wife.


[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Lalazar, Karachi]
[sunday march 9th 2003 at 22:58:07] []